Samsung's top of the line LED TV is the best we've seen this year, with excellent picture quality and a great smart TV system.
Until its 4K TV arrives in the UK, the UE55F8000 sits at the top of Samsung's 2013 TV lineup. Of course, this means it's packed full of features, including -- deep breath -- voice and motion control technology, a smart TV system that supports all the major UK terrestrial TV catch up services, micro-dimming for deeper black levels, dual tuners for both Freesat and Freeview and active 3D support.
Phew. Unfortunately, this also means it has a hefty price tag to match, as it'll set you back a whopping £2,500.
There are actually four ways to control this TV, which is probably three ways too many. You can use the standard TV zapper, you can rely on the touchpad remote, and, as with last year's models, you can even wave your hand around Minority Report-style to interact with the onscreen menus or talk to the TV to ask it to perform certain functions.
For voice control you can either just speak directly to the TV or alternatively press the microphone button on the touchpad remote and speak into the remote. The latter tends to be more reliable, but raises the question of why bother using the voice feature when you already have the remote in your hand? Samsung says that it's because sometimes it's faster to use voice, especially for search, but that's not something I'm completely convinced by, as we'll find out.
If you're speaking directly to the TV you have to say a trigger phrase to get it to first wake up the voice-recognition engine. After a pause of a couple of seconds, you can then bark your orders. If you use the touchpad remote instead, it's more rapid, as it'll start listening to you as soon as you press the mic button on the zapper.
Samsung has rejigged the voice-recognition system so it can now have a stab at understanding natural speech. As well as commands such as, "power on" and "channel up", you can now also tell it to open certain apps or check which films are coming up on the Freeview or Freesat channels.
The problem is voice recognition still feels very clunky to use and isn't terribly good at working out what you're trying to get the TV to do. It's slow to initially respond unless you're using the touchpad remote and you often have to try different ways of saying the same thing to get it to open apps.
Also, searching for content using voice works only across certain services. It works for Samsung's own video service, for example, but not Netflix or Lovefilm.
Really I think most people will try the voice functions a few times, find it too frustrating to use and then never bother with them again. If it was more accurate and worked across more apps it would be useful for searching for movies by name -- on Netflix, say -- but that's just not the case at present.
Samsung has also tried to improve the motion-control features, but again they're still not good enough or useful enough to be a worthwhile addition to the TV. This model uses a better camera than last year's equivalent, with a 5-megapixel sensor to improve tracking and low light performance.
You can also now hide the camera away by pushing it down into the body of the chassis if you're worried about privacy or just don't want to spoil the TV's stylish lines. Unfortunately, it doesn't have an auto-release mechanism to pop it back up when you open apps like Skype, which Panasonic's VT65 does offer.
If you want to use the motion-control features you have to raise your hand with your palm open and facing the TV and then wave it over and back. The TV will then pop up an onscreen cursor you can move around to change channels or volume, launch apps and the like. The camera can track two hands now, so you can bring your hands tighter to zoom out on a picture or pull them apart to zoom in, and there's a new swiping gesture to jump between the pages in the smart TV menu.
I found the TV often struggle, however, to recognise the waving gesture to trigger the motion control feature and although its tracking was good during daylight hours, it was still very poor when used in the evening with low lighting levels.
Samsung hasn't really changed its TVs' settings menus for the last two years. I've no quibbles about this, as it remains an excellent menu system that's beautifully presented with crisp graphics and logically laid out menus. There's a wealth of picture-tweaking options too, including a full colour-management system.
The EPG also essentially remains unchanged. It's bright, colourful and easy to read from a distance. It's also speedy to navigate around and there's a video window so you can carry on watching a TV show while flicking through the programming guide to find shows you might want to watch later. Samsung has also integrated elements of the TV guide into the smart TV menu, to offer you suggestions on stuff you might want to watch.
The UE55F8000 is a seriously stylish telly. It's less imposing than its plasma brother, the F8500, partly because it seems to float on its arc stand rather than taking the all-in-one approach of the F8500.
It's supremely slim too, for a 55-inch model, and it's obvious the designers have paid attention to every aspect of the chassis, as even the rear is amazingly tidy, with none of the random air grilles you see on most sets. From the front it's deliciously simple, with just a narrow chrome band acting as frame for the screen.
The only slight issue that I could see is that the arc stand runs the whole width of the TV, so you'll need an AV unit at least as wide as the TV to sit it upon, whereas with most pedestal stands the TV can overhang the edge of a unit without any problems. The arc stand does look very elegant though, and helps give this set its own distinctive sense of style.
While Panasonic has annoyingly cut back the number of HDMI ports on its sets, Samsung is thankfully going in the opposite direction. Whereas last year's models only had three HDMI ports, the F8000 has four. Three of these are mounted on a downward facing panel on the rear while the fourth is found on the right-hand panel along with the TV's three USB ports. Naturally there's also a set of component inputs (although you do have to use a break-out cable to connect to them) and an Ethernet socket. As you'd expect at this price, Wi-Fi is also built-in.
The TV has dual tuners for both Freesat and Freeview HD onboard, so you'll find a pair of satellite inputs on the rear next to the RF input. This also means that if you hook a hard drive up to the set you can use it as a PVR and even record one channel while watching another.
Samsung's attempts to improve its voice- and motion-control features may be hit and miss, but its redesigned smart TV system is an unqualified success. The new system used here is powered by a quad-core processor and so feels much faster and smoother than before. The presentation is much slicker too, giving it more of a smart phone or tablet feel.
The 'Smarthub' is divided into multiple different pages. The On TV page shows a thumbnail of the currently TV show you're watching as well as six images related to upcoming shows that you might want to watch. The system learns over time what you like from your viewing habits, so it's a bit like TiVo in this regard.
Hop right to the Movie and TV page and you'll find more recommendations, this time for movies and TV shows from Samsung's Video Hub that you might want to watch. Flick right again and you'll find yourself at the Photos, Videos and Music page where you can play or stream your own digital media files from USB drives or networked devices.
Flick back in the opposite direction from the On TV page you'll land on the apps hub. This displays a row of apps selected by Samsung -- below this there's a grid into which you can slot shortcuts for your favourite apps. Scrolling left again takes you to the social page where you're shown recommended YouTube videos, as well video content your mates have posted on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Samsung's smart TV system is hands down the best out there at the moment. It has the broadest selection of apps, including catch-up apps for all the major UK terrestrial broadcasters, so you get BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, Demand5 and 4oD onboard. There's both Netflix and Lovefilm, as well as Blinkbox for movie rentals. The built-in camera and microphone also mean the TV can be used for making video calls in Skype from the comfort of your couch.
Samsung has improved its media player, too, although it's still far from perfect. It now supports MKV HD video as well as MP4, DivX and Xvid files. The interface for the media player is much slicker and faster to use too. File support in the media player has also improved. It now plays back HD MKV files, along with Divx, MP4 and Xvid videos. However, as on the F8500 I looked at recently, the fast-forward and rewind controls only work when you're playing back content from USB drives, they don't work when you're streaming files across a network. This is something Samsung's engineers really need to fix.
To be fair, though, the whole smart TV system did seem more stable than when I tested it on the F8500, and there was one software update during my time testing the set, so Samsung still seems to be developing it at a reasonably rapid rate.
I still think Samsung should include a proper tutorial that explains all the features and how to use them, as it's easy to get a bit overwhelmed by all the features when you first start.
The F8000's audio isn't best-in-class, but it's definitely one of the better sounding LED sets I've had in for review. It doesn't have the overall depth and warmth of something like Sony's older HX853, but Samsung has integrated a mini woofer system into the bottom of the chassis and this does help it crank out a bit more low end than some of the company's previous sets.
The wide chassis means that the stereo speakers are further apart and this does help it spread out the stereo image a bit helping it to delver a more convincing sound stage.
The handsome design and clever smart TV system would all count for nothing if this set wasn't able to produce good-looking pictures. Thankfully, the F8000 is easily the best LED set that has ever rolled off the Samsung production line.
Despite the fact you're paying close to two and a half grand for a TV, though, Samsung still can't put a decent preset on the TV. Of the bunch, the Movie mode is the best, but it still drives the backlight too hard, has the sharpness cranked up too high and needs the colours adjusting slightly. Once this has been taken care of the good news is that its pictures are, for the most part, stunning.
Colours are big, bold and bright, yet have enough restraint to deftly handle skin tones and other tricky natural hues. HD images are razor-sharp and black levels are surprisingly deep for an LED set. Importantly they're also more consistent across the display, although to my eyes Sony's W905A was a little better in this regard. It's not bad at delivering shadow detail, but the software micro-dimming feature does crush this at times, so it's not as strong as Samsung's own F8500 in this regard.
You can dim the backlight at the top and bottom of the display when you're watching a widescreen movie with black bars, to stop the cloudy backlighting you often see in these bars on LED TVs. You have to turn this on and off manually, however. It would have been much cleverer if the TV could automatically recognise the presence of black bars onscreen and do it for you.
Samsung's motion processing is still overly aggressive at the higher settings, though, leading to lots of ugly flickering around moving objects, but on the Clear setting it does a good job of upping motion clarity without suffering from these problems and you can also adjust the de-judder and de-blur settings yourself to get even better results.
Another issue I noticed on my sample was that there was a quarter of a centimetre line across the top and bottom of the screen that seemed to have slightly different lighting to the rest of the display when showing certain colours. It looks similar to the 'crease' that was present on some of Sony's LED models a couple of years ago. It's a fairly minor issue and only really noticeable when the set is showing specific colours on those parts of the display, such as light blue or blacks.
These issues might be niggles, but they do add up and the end result is that when judged overall, I'd prefer to have Samsung's F8500 in my lounge than the F8000. Sure, the F8000 is a tad slimmer and prettier, but the F8500 is a good deal cheaper, yet produces slightly better picture quality.
In the box you'll find two pairs of Samsung's active 3D glasses. These are a little on the flimsy side, but they're light, which helps them feel a little bit more comfortable to wear.
The F8000's 3D pictures are very strong. Watching Hugo and Prometheus on Blu-ray, there's a very good sense of depth and colours retain lots of punch. Images are almost completely free of crosstalk too. Impressively, Samsung's active glasses produce very little flicker on any ambient light that might be in your room, so they're less tiring on your eyes.
One slight annoyance, though, is that the F8000 seems to keep some motion processing turned on in 3D, even when you've got the setting turned off in the menu. You can see this clearly in the opening shot of Hugo, as it looks too smooth as the camera sweeps into the train station. Many people will probably like the smoother motion it produces, but I'd prefer to have the ability to turn it off and go with the inherent judder of film, even if Samsung had tucked the toggle switch away in an expert menu or something similar.
As an overall package, the UE55F8000 is just about the best LED screen I've come across. Its motion- and voice-control features are still not much more than gimmicks, but the smart TV system is top notch and the set's picture and audio quality is very strong by LED standards. That's just as well, as this is a hugely expensive TV.
Nevertheless, if you mostly use your TV to watch movies in the evening, you'll get better picture results and save yourself some cash by opting for Samsung's incredibly impressive F8500 plasma instead, even if its chassis isn't quite as handsome as that of the F8000.
Editor's note: Review updated 8 July to correct a mistake in the 2D picture quality section.